Sunday, October 21, 2007

Meet Lomnyak and Namayani.
TFFT's newest wanafunzi Wamaasai.

Simply put, I am obsessed with this brother and sister tandem, the only two Maasai in a group of 19 students that TFFT placed in Fikiria Kwanza Academy this September. Just look at them. Possibly the cutest kids in history.

On their applications, their ages were listed as seven and five, respectively. Hunter and I place the real figures at around four and three, reverse Danny Almonte style.

Forget about English, the language du jour in every class at Fikiria Kwanza, an English medium boarding school in Usa River, Tanzania. Lomnyak -- who is the boy, by the way -- knew absolutely no Kiswahili before he showed up for school the first day. Not a word. Not mambo; not poa; not even hakuna matata. Unlike his little sister, who had done a brief stint at some day care center where other children gave her a rudimentary exposure to Swahili, Lomnyak had never been to school. As a Maasai, then, it's almost as if Lomnyak had never even lived in Tanzania, a country in which 120 disparate tribes are all threaded together through a common tongue. Until about seven weeks ago, when TFFT changed all that for him, making friends meant making Maasai friends, and speaking Kimaasai with those Maasai friends.

Coming to Fikiria Kwanza has been quite the transition for the big guy, to say the least.

It's been an even bigger transition for Lomnyak than the one shy little Namayani went through in her first few days, but due to the amazing speed in which Lomnyak has begun to pick up Swahili, they are in basically the same boat at this point. Instead of a hopeless situation in Monduli, where they were being given next to no attention by an unemployed Maasai father, suddenly these kids are now drowning in it, be it as it may that it is attention expressed in Swahili and English. Hope has sprung eternal in two foreign languages for these two. One look at Lomnyak's toothless smile, or a quick glance at Namayani's sheepish grin, could tell you how aware they are of this fact.

Lomnyak is "the hitter," as Hunter and I say. Likes to hit, a lot. He's crazy. Namayani, the shy one, is the complete opposite of the hitter. "Serene;" I like that one-word summary of my little Maasai angel, the kid who makes me want to pull an Angelina Jolie more than any other child at that school. If I could take just one thing home from Tanzania with me in my carry on, it would be Namayani. She's probably fit, too -- the kid is tiny.

As her uncle, the brother of the children's widower father, drove her and Lomnyak to Fikiria Kwanza that first day, she sat crying in the back seat, pleading with him to not drop her upstream (in a new universe) without a paddle. Not old enough to understand how this might be helping her, Namayani was frigid her first two, three days at her new school. But as soon as the frost began to thaw, almost overnight she blossomed, like one of the thousands of bluish purple flowers gracing the branches of the jacaranda trees all over the Arusha region at the moment. Every time I see Namayani these days, instead of a frightened, confused expression, I see a huge smile, always followed by a feet-shuffling, meandering trot, my little Maasai angel fluttering her wings in my direction.

I love our wanafunzi Wamaasai.

Life dealt these kids a rough hand. Their mom died during childbirth; their father isn't quite the caliber of Danny Tanner in his parenting ability. Only the chance encounter between a friend of the children's uncle and Meghann, the one who calls the shots at TFFT, secured them a spot in the Original Nineteen. It would be hard to ever call orphans "lucky" just because they get sponsored to go to a private school, but TFFT is doing its best to even out the scales a bit.

To help these children long term, the gift of education will have to do. I don't have the funds to pull an Angelina just yet.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Itika (photo unavailable) is by far my best student. Though native to Tanganyika, she spent a large chunk of her life living in South Africa, so she’s got the inside track on all her born and bred Tanzanian classmates in speaking the English language. Perhaps because it deludes me into thinking that I’m having a significant impact on at least one of these kids, grading Itika’s “homework” (explanation of quotations to come) always refreshes me.

But it’s her mastery of the second person plural that has made Itika my unabashed teacher’s pet.

Fikiria Kwanza Academy, the school where Managing Director Flint and I have been teaching since the beginning of September, doesn’t even have real grades, so Itika’s prize is going to have to be make-believe. I say they’re not “real” because there is absolutely no minimum score that you’ve got to meet if you want to pass onto the next grade, basically eliminating the most basic incentive to study and learn the material, aside from fear of a beating at home: the fear of flunking out, or of having to repeat a grade. I jumped all over this ridiculous policy for a solid hour at the first teachers’ meeting last Friday, attacking its logic like the chickens behind our house attack our daily offerings of compost, but it is such a common policy of private schools in this country that not a single teacher shared my out outrage.

So with no real reason to get make-believe extra credit, Itika went ahead and did what “that kid” we all remember from our days as 7th graders would do: she got it anyway, padding her lead like Steve Spurrier in the 4th quarter of a 70-3 drubbing of Florida International during his days in Gainesville.

“Excuse me Teecha, but isn’t the plural form of “you” supposed to be ‘y’all’?”

A third generation Texan on both sides of the family tree, my heart skipped a beat. My immediate first thought was obviously, “Itika,” but it just hadn’t sounded like her. I had to root out the culprit.

“Who said’ y’all’?” I snapped, abruptly, but not in a way that was rude to the teacher who I had just interrupted, Bwana Oola. There was no response. “Who said y’all?” I repeated, a little more eagerly this time around, eyes scanning the room.

Itika, tucked away in the corner, outside my line of sight, raised her hand.

I can’t say I was surprised.

“You’re right about that,” I said, initially looking her right in the eyes. “‘Y’all’ is what you say in real conversation, but it’s not proper English. It’s more like …” – What was that thing my neighbor Biti had taught me to say for "street Swahili?" I looked down at my shoelaces as I searched for the phrase, – “…Kingereza cha mtaa.”

Every single student started laughing. My periodic Kiswahili cha mtaa phrase-dropping gives me big time street cred as a Mzungu teacher with machizi waaaangu (the euphemism Nako 2 Nako, an Arusha-based Kiswahili hip hop group, has turned into the hippest alternative to “my friends” out there).

I was using this opportunity to address the entire class; Itika had brought up an extremely important distinction between ‘textbook English’ and ‘the way English is meant to be spoken.’ Or in case you don't habla ingl├ęs, she’d highlighted one example in the difference between textbook English and Kingereza cha mtaa.

“I didn’t want to confuse y’all with it earlier,” I said to the 20-something pairs of temporarily-inquisitive eyes, enunciating you know which word, “but Itika is correct.” As I went to the board to write down my point, I prayed: “Please, Mungu, let one of the kids staring at me actually be absorbing this right now.”

While I still had the floor, I looked back at Itika, and told her we’d talk later. Written on the chalkboard behind me were the words:


When I finally did get a chance to have a one-on-one moment with Itika, it was after Bwana Oola had written on the board his daily list of 10-15 fill-in-the-blank sentences, which students are required to complete during the remaining few minutes of class time (see? Not homework). Knowing Itika doesn’t need all that much time on these linguistic lay up drills, I sat in the empty desk next to her to clear up some “y’all”-related confusion she’d had later on during the lesson on possessives.

“You do say that,” I told her, overriding Bwana Oola’s pronouncement that it was wrong to tell a group of people, “Y’all’s car is red.” “It’s just that it's too confusing to explain this to the rest of the class,” I said, keeping my voice as mouse-like as possible. “But just know, you do say that in real English. You just never write it on a test or a formal letter or something. ‘Y’alls car is red.’ It sounds way better. Sawa?” I ended with a little Swahili.

Itika said, smiling.

So it’s a little bit of a load off now that I’ve got that covered. I've also already taught them, on just my second day as a matter of fact, the most basic English tidbit ever: to answer, “What’s up?” with one word, “Nothing.” I guess the next pressing item on the agenda is the importance of using, “It’s the same thing,” rather than, “Same difference.”

If there’s no difference, after all, it can’t be the same. It’s the students like Itika who I’m trying to reach, and she’s going to have to know these things if she’s ever going to master Kingereza cha mtaa.